Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Reading

Now What? — Suzy Khimm in The New Republic on where the Religious Right goes now.

It’s been a rough stretch lately for Christian social conservatives, whose nightmare came to life this past summer with the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage in Obergefell vs. Hodges. But the annual Values Voter Summit kicked off this past weekend in Washington with shouts of jubilation, as activists celebrated the unexpected news that House Speaker John Boehner would be resigning amid the fight over social conservatives’ effort to defund Planned Parenthood or force a government shutdown. “Yes!” one man shouted above the deafening cheers and applause on Friday morning after Senator Marco Rubio interrupted his address to announce Boehner’s exit from the podium. “Amen!” shouted another.

Later, on Friday evening, another packed room at the Omni Shoreham would erupt once again when Kim Davis, the defiant country clerk from Kentucky, took the stage to accept an award for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “I am only one,” Davis told the crowd in her brief remarks, her voice rising to a shout. “But we are many!”

It was a pent-up primal scream that these Christian culture-warriors have long been waiting to unleash. While these triumphal moments may have been fleeting—Boehner almost surely won’t be replaced as speaker by a hardcore social conservative, and Davis’s stand has done nothing concrete to advance the cause of religious liberties—the urge to cheer for something was easy to understand; right about now, evangelicals will take whatever victories they can get. Ever since the religious right’s political power arguably peaked in 2004, when President George W. Bush and Karl Rove made gay-marriage bans a centerpiece of their re-election strategy, social conservatives have watched helplessly as their “family values” agenda fizzled, as the tide increasingly swam against them on gay marriage, and as Tea Partiers replaced them as the most coveted constituency for Republican candidates to court. While they’ve had great success in enacting abortion restrictions in many states, they’ve seen popular support for much of their once-ambitious policy agenda erode.

Despite the hallelujahs, what this year’s summit ended up highlighting was not the resurgent power of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party, but how much their influence on the policy debate has diminished outside of the issue of abortion. As usual, most of the major GOP presidential contenders—even the unlikely figure of Donald Trumpcame courting the crowd of 2,700 who’d registered for the event. But they offered little besides effusive praise for Kim Davis and utterly vague—if not utterly unrealistic—promises to champion religious liberties in the White House. When the summit-goers left Washington to scatter back to their hometowns across America, they left with no clear idea of what to fight for next on gay marriage—or how.

Get To Know Jorge Ramos — William Finnegan at The New Yorker profiles the Univision anchor and best-known journalist you’ve never heard of.

When Jorge Ramos travels in Middle America, nobody recognizes him—until somebody does. Ramos is the evening-news co-anchor on Univision, the country’s largest Spanish-language TV network, a job he has held since 1986. A few weeks ago, I was on a flight with him from Chicago to Dubuque. Ramos, who is fifty-seven, is slim, not tall, with white hair and an unassuming demeanor. Wearing jeans, a gray sports coat, and a blue open-collared shirt, he went unremarked. But then, as he disembarked, a fellow-passenger, a stranger in her thirties, drew him aside at the terminal gate, speaking rapidly in Spanish. Ramos bowed his head to listen. The woman was a teacher at a local technical college. Things in this part of Iowa were bad, she said. People were afraid to leave their houses. When they went to Walmart, they only felt comfortable going at night. Ramos nodded. Her voice was urgent. She wiped her eyes. He held her arm while she composed herself. The woman thanked him and rushed away.

“Did you hear that?” he asked, at the car-rental counter. “They only go out to Walmart at night.”

In an Italian restaurant on a sleepy corner in downtown Dubuque, a dishwasher came out from the kitchen toward the end of lunch to pay her respects. She, too, fought back tears as she thanked Ramos for his work. He asked her how long she had been in Iowa. Five years, she said. She was from Hidalgo, not far from Mexico City, Ramos’s home town. She hurried back to the kitchen.

“We have almost no political representation,” Ramos said. He meant Latinos in the United States. “Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz won’t defend the undocumented.”

“A Country for All,” Ramos’s most recent book—he has published eleven—is dedicated to “all undocumented immigrants.” He was trying to explain how a journalist finds himself in the role of advocate.

“We’re a young community,” he said. “You wouldn’t expect ABC, or any of the mainstream networks, to take a position on immigration, health care, anything. But at Univision it’s different. We are pro-immigrant. That’s our audience, and people depend on us. When we are better represented politically, that role for us will recede.”

Besides co-anchoring the nightly news, and cranking out books, Ramos hosts a Sunday-morning public-affairs show, “Al Punto” (“To the Point”), and writes a syndicated column; for the past two years, he has also hosted a weekly news-magazine show, “America with Jorge Ramos,” in English, on a fledgling network (a joint venture of Univision and ABC) called Fusion. (When Jon Stewart asked him, on “The Daily Show,” to account for his hyperactivity, Ramos said, “I’m an immigrant. So I just need to get a lot of jobs.”) His English is fluent, if strongly accented. His Spanish, particularly on-air, is carefully neutral—pan-Latino, not noticeably Mexican. Univision’s audience comes from many different countries, and the network broadcasts from Miami, where the most common form of Spanish is Cuban.

Ramos occupies a peculiar place in the American news media. He has won eight Emmys and an armload of journalism awards, covered every major story since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and interviewed every American President since George H. W. Bush. (He’s interviewed Barack Obama half a dozen times.) But his affiliation can work against him. In June, when he sent a handwritten letter to Donald Trump, who had just launched his Presidential campaign, requesting an interview, it was no dice. Univision had cut its business ties with Trump, including its telecasts of the Miss U.S.A. and Miss Universe beauty pageants, after Trump accused Mexico of sending “rapists” to the United States. Trump posted Ramos’s letter on Instagram, crowing that Univision was “begging” him for interviews. The letter included Ramos’s personal cell-phone number, which Ramos was then obliged to change. In the weeks that followed, Trump produced a stream of provocative remarks and proposals about Mexicans and immigration, giving the national immigration-policy debate the hardest edge it has had in generations. Now Ramos really wanted to interview him.

Signs Of The Times — Michael Paulson in the New York Times on the revival of the musical “Spring Awakening” with deaf actors.

Staging a Broadway show is always a three-dimensional chess game. But this “Spring Awakening,” which uses eight deaf actors, eight hearing actors and seven onstage musicians, has added another layer of complexity and sparked a burst of theatrical innovation.

Musicals, after all, are built around sound, and ordinarily it is a beat, a lyric or a spoken phrase that signals to an actor when to walk on or walk off, when to begin a speech or a song, when to start a step. But for this “Spring Awakening,” the director Michael Arden, the choreographer Spencer Liff and the actors themselves have devised an array of silent cues: hidden lights, coded gestures, timed touches and prompting props.

“Spring Awakening,” a darkly tragic drama about adolescent sexuality in a repressive community, was written as a play by Frank Wedekind in 1891, and then adapted into a rock musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik in 2006. The adaptation was a hit on Broadway — it won eight Tony awards, including for best new musical, provided starmaking roles to Lea Michele (“Glee”), Jonathan Groff (“Hamilton”) and John Gallagher Jr. (“American Idiot”), and ran for just over two years.

Mr. Arden, who has been collaborating with the Los Angeles troupe Deaf West Theater since appearing in their Broadway revival of “Big River” in 2003, thought that “Spring Awakening,” which he viewed as “a cautionary tale about the perils of miscommunication,” would have great resonance with a deaf cast. Both “Big River” and this “Spring Awakening” had two productions in Los Angeles before transferring to Broadway.

Without altering the Sater-Sheik book or lyrics, Mr. Arden has added a new context for the story. The deaf actors portray deaf students in a school that does not allow the use of sign language, implicitly nodding to a historical event (contemporaneous with the play’s setting in late 19th-century Germany) in which an international conference of educators called for the mandatory and exclusive use of oralism (lip reading and speech) when teaching deaf students.

In one scene, a teacher, played by Patrick Page, can be seen threatening students who use sign language, attempting to train the deaf to speak by having them feel, and then mimic, the movement of his mouth and throat, and by having them watch the impact of vocalizations on a feather held in front of the face.

In this “Spring Awakening,” which opened to good reviews on Sept. 27, the deaf actors are at the center: Mr. Arden has asked the cast, and is now expecting audiences, to focus attention on the signing, not the singing. The deaf actors are often downstage and lighted from the front; their hearing partners are generally lighted from behind, and in ensemble numbers the cast members look toward the signers.

“It is highly important that the performance is the deaf actors’, and the hearing actors are following their intention — we get in trouble if we get ahead of them,” said the actress Camryn Manheim, a onetime sign language interpreter who is making her Broadway debut playing several adult women in the show.

Doonesbury — Bigfooting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Crime Report

This is both scary and ridiculous.

A Washington Post reporter who was arrested at a restaurant last year while reporting on protests in Ferguson, Mo., has been charged in St. Louis County with trespassing and interfering with a police officer and ordered to appear in court.

Wesley Lowery, a reporter on The Post’s national desk, was detained in a McDonald’s while he was in Missouri covering demonstrations sparked by a white police officer fatally shooting an unarmed black 18-year-old.

A court summons dated Aug. 6 — just under a year after Lowery’s arrest — was sent to Lowery, 25, ordering him to appear in a St. Louis County municipal court on Aug. 24. The summons notes that he could be arrested if he does not appear.

“Charging a reporter with trespassing and interfering with a police officer when he was just doing his job is outrageous,” Martin Baron, executive editor of The Post, said in a statement Monday. “You’d have thought law enforcement authorities would have come to their senses about this incident. Wes Lowery should never have been arrested in the first place. That was an abuse of police authority.

Good luck sneaking that one past the First Amendment.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Too Little, Too Late

The New York Timespublic editor admits that running with a story that starts out saying Hillary Clinton is being investigated for “criminal” behavior in regards to her private e-mail account and classified documents and then updating and revising the account numerous times before admitting there’s no real there there is bad journalism.

First, consider the elements. When you add together the lack of accountability that comes with anonymous sources, along with no ability to examine the referral itself, and then mix in the ever-faster pace of competitive reporting for the web, you’ve got a mistake waiting to happen. Or, in this case, several mistakes.

Reporting a less sensational version of the story, with a headline that did not include the word “criminal,” and continuing to develop it the next day would have been a wise play. Better yet: Waiting until the next day to publish anything at all.

Losing the story to another news outlet would have been a far, far better outcome than publishing an unfair story and damaging The Times’s reputation for accuracy.

What’s more, when mistakes inevitably happen, The Times needs to be much more transparent with readers about what is going on. Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.

That’s all well and good, but the lie has already made it halfway around the world.  You can bet that we’re going to see GOP attack ads on Hillary Clinton that include the words “criminal investigation” before the end of the week.

Monday, April 27, 2015


What a surprise: wingnuts fall for a bogus story.  Via TPM:

A Las Vegas man claims that he concocted a bogus story about Harry Reid’s brother beating up Reid to see whether he could get right-wing media outlets and blogs to run with it. He did. All without any corroboration or even requiring the man, Larry Pfeifer, to provide his true identity.


Pfeifer said he got the idea after the rightwing media started pushing a story that Reid’s eye injury was actually punishment from mafia figures with whom he purportedly had a falling out. Eventually Pfeifer’s tale made it onto the Limbaugh Show.

From the Las Vegas Sun:

Larry Pfeifer, a 50-year-old former consultant in the nightclub and entertainment industry, said he fabricated the story after becoming appalled that right-wing political blogger John Hinderaker published a rumor that Reid’s injuries stemmed from an assault by a Mafia enforcer. Pfeifer said he pitched his fake story about the Reid brothers’ supposed fight to Hinderaker, author of the Power Line blog, to test whether the blogger would publish it, as well. When Hinderaker reported it and the rumor was subsequently spread by others in conservative media, Pfeifer says he began plotting to self-report it as a lie to show the lack of credibility and journalistic standards among partisan media figures.

That’s not to say that lefties don’t fall for bullshit stories, too, but they usually aren’t as blatantly bogus as a guy getting a snootful, wandering into an AA meeting, and bragging how he cold-cocked the Senate Majority Leader, which Mr. Reid was at the time he got injured.

The sad part is that something like that will make into the mainstream media.  Not because anyone bothered to fact-check it, but because it’s being bleated on the right and hey, journalism is all about being objective, right?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Buying Garbage

The New York Times owns up to working with a right-wing hit man for dirt on Hillary Clinton.

In the long lead up to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign announcement, aides proved adept in swatting down critical books as conservative propaganda, including Edward Klein’s “Blood Feud,” about tensions between the Clintons and the Obamas, and Daniel Halper’s “Clinton Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine.”

But “Clinton Cash” is potentially more unsettling, both because of its focused reporting and because major news organizations including The Times, The Washington Post and Fox News have exclusive agreements with the author to pursue the story lines found in the book.

It’s a time-saving measure: why bother to do the work of “journalism” when you can go out there and buy whatever crap someone is peddling?

Do you really think the Times is buying into this so they can debunk it?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

War Story

NBC News anchor Brian Williams apologizes for remembering something that didn’t happen to him.

I yield the floor to those who were there and who know all too well how combat — or even just the proximity of it — can alter the perceptions.

I find this to be a pretty big nothing-burger. He wasn’t trying to personally profit from the situation, he was just trying to do something nice for the CSM. He even initially accurately reported what happened, and only now seems to have screwed up the narrative. And he immediately apologized when he realized he was wrong, on facebook in the thread where he was confronted, and again on tv…


And no, liberals, this is not the same as Hillary’s sniper fire bullshit, in which she completely made up stuff to embellish herself. Here, Williams just misspoke (misremembered/whatever blows your trumpet) in a tribute to an American soldier.

I don’t watch his network news program enough to care about Brian Williams, but, like John Cole, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that this is end of it, although I have my doubts.  This is just the sort of shiny-object thing that fills the vast void of what passes for public discourse today.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Granma, Indiana

Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) is not happy with the way the press covers his administration.  So he’s decided to start his own state-run media.

Gov. Mike Pence is starting a state-run taxpayer-funded news outlet that will make pre-written news stories available to Indiana media, as well as sometimes break news about his administration, according to documents obtained by The Indianapolis Star.

Pence is planning in late February to launch “Just IN,” a website and news outlet that will feature stories and news releases written by state press secretaries and is being overseen by a former Indianapolis Star reporter, Bill McCleery.

The difference between “Just IN” and Granma, the news outlet in Havana, Cuba, is that the latter has no problem labeling itself as the official voice of the political party in charge.  Why so shy, Mike?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Short Takes

The post-attack run of 3 million copies of Charlie Hebdo sold out.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen claimed responsibility for the Paris attack.

Feds file charges against a man who plotted to blow up the U.S. Capitol.

Secret Service executives demoted after report on scandals.

Climbers reach the top of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall in Yosemite.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sunday Reading

The Right to Be Offended — Karl Sharro in The Atlantic on the retreat of free speech.

As a satirist who focuses on the Middle East, I’ve bumped up against my share of boundaries. Two years ago, for example, I struggled with how to satirize the tendency of some Western observers to distort conflicts in the Middle East by attributing those conflicts to “ancient rivalries” rather than, say, contemporary political struggles. Ultimately, I decided that the best approach would be to push that logic to its absurd conclusion by writing a “tribal” guide to the region, which relied on familiar stereotypes about Sunnis, Shiites, Jews, and others. I hoped readers would understand that these caricatures were meant not to be crude and bigoted, but rather to show how disconnected the ancient-rivalries thesis is from reality. And readers did understand—for the most part. This ability to test the boundaries of good taste, and even to be offensive, is essential to effective satire. But it’s now under threat.

Following the attack on Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris and the cold-blooded murder of 12 people, a familiar refrain rang out in some quarters. The assault on the satirical magazine, so the argument went, represented a collision of cultures: a Western one that champions freedom of speech and an Islamic one that does not tolerate offenses to its religious symbols. But one of the real storylines here isn’t some clash of civilizations; it’s the steady erosion of freedom of expression and the rise of the right to be offended—in the West as well as other parts of the world.

The culture-clash interpretation of the horror in Paris transcends political divides in the West. On the right, some claim that Muslims’ beliefs are incompatible with modernity and Western values. On the left, some construe the attack as a retaliation for severe offenses, essentially suggesting that Muslims are incapable of responding rationally to such offenses and that it is therefore best not to provoke them. The latter explanation is dressed up in the language of social justice and marginalization, but is, at its core, a patronizing view of ordinary Muslims and their capacity to advocate for their rights without resorting to nihilistic violence. This outlook also promotes the idea that Muslims and other people of Middle Eastern origin are defined primarily by their religion, which in turn devalues and demeans the attempts of Arab and Middle Eastern secularists to define themselves through varying interpretations of religion or even by challenging religion and its role in public life. By seeking to present religion as a form of cultural identity that should be protected from offense and critique, Western liberals are consequently undermining the very struggles against the authority of inherited institutions through which much of the Western world’s social and political progress was achieved.

Given that I often deal with the issue of jihadism in my satire, the Charlie Hebdo attack highlighted the dangers that my colleagues and I face when we mock extremists. Still, there is a risk in framing what we do as satirists and cartoonists as a heroic battle against extremism. For one thing, this implies that only ‘worthy’ works of satire should be defended on the grounds of free speech. For freedom of speech and expression to mean something, they must be defended on their own terms, not because of their political usefulness in the fight against extremism.

This is a critical distinction given the current climate in the West, where a culture of taking offense has found fertile ground and is increasingly restricting what artists and writers are able to do and say. The British writer Kenan Malik traces the origins of this trend to 1989, when the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomenei issued his infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie for allegedly blaspheming Islam in The Satanic Verses. In From Fatwa to Jihad, Malik argues convincingly that the response to the fatwa and similar threats has been counterproductive, coming to pose a grave threat to free speech. “Internalizing the fatwa has not just created a new culture of self-censorship, it has also helped generate the same problems to which self-censorship was supposedly a response,” he writes. “The fear of giving offence has simply made it easier to take offence.”


The murders in Paris have certainly brought the struggle for free speech into stark relief. But it’s premature to expect the episode to reverse the trend toward more restrictions on expression in the West. This week, for instance, the gush of support for freedom of expression was quickly countered by backlash against an op-ed written by Anjem Choudary, in which the radical British Islamist justified the Charlie Hebdo attack by claiming that Muslims don’t believe in free speech and that France shouldn’t have allowed the cartoons to be published. Many people argued that he shouldn’t have been given a platform in the press, particularly at a moment like this (for a sense of the intensity of the response, just look at Twitter).

But restricting free speech further, even in the case of so-called hate speech, would be precisely the wrong response to the carnage in Paris. Instead, we should reassert the rights of satirical magazines and radical preachers alike to express their views, and the freedom of anyone and everyone to challenge them. That’s the best lesson to learn from this tragedy.

What’s Funny — Colin Stokes in The New Yorker.

Over the past few days, it has become apparent that many people have lost their ability to laugh. Some of us could laugh at one point but, owing to recent events, have become unable to do so. Others of us seem never to have been able to laugh in the first place. This is a guide both for those who only now find themselves incapable of laughter and for those who have had difficulty laughing their entire lives.

Part I. A joke is a thing that is meant to make life tolerable.

Suffering is all around us, just like furniture when you are at an IKEA store. Sometimes it comes from the natural world, like the wood used to make the furniture that is currently surrounding you at the IKEA store. Sometimes it comes from other people, like the people who pick things up and then leave them in totally random places around the IKEA store. Sometimes it’s just there, and we don’t know where it came from, like that ownerless dog that follows you around the IKEA parking lot, and then wants to come home with you, but the second you let it into your car, it poops everywhere.

When people make a joke, what they are doing is combining words and/or images in ways that are intended to surprise you a little. They may even surprise you a lot. These surprises make us laugh because we weren’t expecting them, and we involuntarily react by laughing when we are released from a state of not knowing what is about to come. Laughing lets us forget about the suffering that is an unavoidable part of life, at least temporarily. It frees us to lie down in a bed that we don’t own at IKEA, and to try to forget about the small dog that changed the way our car smells forever.

Part II. Sometimes jokes make people upset.

Necessarily, in the course of trying to surprise people, jokes can surprise some people a little too much. Once I told a joke to James Bond when he was suspended above a tank of sharks, trapped in a device that would drop him into the tank if he laughed. He didn’t laugh, though, because he’s a professional spy. Also, it was a current-events joke, and he’s a fictional character from the nineteen-fifties, so he didn’t get it, even though it was really funny, I swear. People often get angry about a joke that they think went too far, and they lash out at the person who told it to them. After he escaped from the shark-tank-laughing device, James Bond was pretty upset with me.

But those who write jokes come to expect negative reactions from a certain number of people. James Bond doesn’t come to any of my standup shows anymore, and certainly not when he’s stuck in the shark-tank-laughing device, which is surprisingly often.

Part III. Jokes can tell truths about things.

Some jokes are more than just surprising per se, because they articulate a truth about something in real life. My friends used to joke that I didn’t know what the term “per se” meant, because I always used it when I was talking about pears that could talk. We laugh at these types of jokes and then, when we’re done laughing, we realize that some of the things we heard in the jokes relate to real life. In this case, I realized that I was, in fact, using “per se” incorrectly.

Part IV. Sometimes getting upset at jokes helps you learn new things.

There are some people who have distorted beliefs about reality. I once fiercely believed that priests and rabbis rarely frequented bars together. When people hear jokes that challenge what they think they know, they can get angry. Did you hear the one about the priest and the rabbi in the bar? It took me a long time to wrap my mind around that one. But now I am surprised by almost no one entering a bar.

Part V. Jokes can be bad.

Some jokes are just completely horrible. Did you hear the one about the blind ship captain? He couldn’t sea anything. That’s a horrendous joke. But I still should have the right to tell it. Just like you have the right to say that it’s not funny, and then temporarily blind me and make me the captain of a ship to show me how unfunny it is. Actually, you don’t have the right to do that—that would be false imprisonment and the infliction of grievous bodily harm. What you should really do is say that it’s not funny, perhaps call it insensitive to blind ship captains, and then move on.

Doonesbury — Hot tips.

Monday, December 8, 2014

TNR Goes Down

Years ago — long before the internet — my mom gave me a subscription to The New Republic, and I dutifully read it.  She had told me that it was not exactly a liberal publication but it had good writing and a long history of in-depth journalism going back to 1914.

But when it came time to renew I didn’t bother.  I think I was in the midst of moving from Colorado to Michigan or something and I already had subscriptions to enough magazines — Newsweek, The Nation, The New Yorker, and Caribbean Travel & Life cluttered the coffee table — and if there was something really important in TNR, Mom would clip it out and send it.

Now the magazine, like most print publications, is going through paroxysms of change as the internet and on-line writing overwhelm the ink barrels.  A few years ago TNR was bought up by Chris Hughes who once won the lottery and roomed with Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard and therefore had the money to buy it.  Last week it went through a major seismic change at the top — mass resignations by editors and top managers– and over the weekend the magazine announced that it was going on hiatus until February.  My money is on it not coming back at all.

There’s no doubt that the magazine had an impact on a lot of readers and writers.  Respected journalists from both the left and the right worked there; people like Michael Kinsley to Andrew Sullivan were editors, and the history of the publication goes back to the heyday of investigative journalism in the early 1900’s.  But as Josh Marshall notes, it has had its time.

I do not think there can be any doubt that what TNR was in decades past was deeply undermined by the publishing revolution of the last 20 years. This didn’t happen in the print versus digital sense we normally think of, not like what happened with newspapers, which is very different.

The key is that 30 years ago, if you wanted to read meaty, smart and incisive writing about politics, policy and the political culture of the United States – written for people who were really into those things – there just were not many places to find it. There were very, very few places in fact.

There were no blogs. There were none of the numerous digital publications which all to some degree take a stab at producing that kind of writing. There was The Nation further to the left, National Review on the right. And none of this is to diminish other even smaller magazines playing a similar role. But there was just nothing comparable to the profusion of material (content, as we now say) we have today.

I don’t like to sound callous and I’m sorry that the people who worked at TNR who had no role in management or editorial decisions are out of a job right before the holidays, but that’s what happens in the business of journalism: magazines come and go, and in the era of on-line journalism, it is especially tough.  Besides, as I noted elsewhere, if I want to read long articles with obscure cultural references, I’ll click on Andrew Sullivan.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Washington Post Turns Corporate

When founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post last year, some wondered how the paper would turn a profit.  After all, newspapers in general have been struggling since the digital age took over news delivery.  The solution for him is apparently to bring in someone with strong ties to both the corporate world and business-friendly administrations.

From Jim Newell at Salon:

Since it’s been in private control, and no longer subject to public shareholder pressure, the paper has invested in hiring dozens and dozens of new staffers with all sorts of cutting-edge “online experience,” writers who understand that the journalism of the future will involve getting lots of people to click on lots of stuff. No word yet on when/how this all becomes profitable. But that’s for the suits to worry about.

And that suit, apparently, will no longer be Katharine Weymouth, who’s leaving her role as publisher of the Washington Post. The exit by Weymouth, granddaughter of legendary Post publisher Katharine Graham, finally puts to rest longtime control of the paper by the Graham family. Into whose carefully chosen hands, now, shall control of the Post go? Which innovative digital prophet will lead the new Growth Era of the Washington Post?

Oh, just some old Reagan hand.

Well, we shouldn’t say “some” old Reagan hand. Fred Ryan, who’s just been named the Post’s new publisher, is among the more Reagan-y people to ever walk the earth — somewhat less Reagan-y than Ronald Reagan himself, but probably more Reagan-y than Nancy Reagan or other members of the Reagan family.


One might say Ryan is “pro-Reagan,” in other words. A lot of people, for whatever reason, are. But we’re talking about the world’s  No. 1 Reagan superfan, here. And now the Washington Post’s editorial board answers to him. This is news. (In his previous non-Reagan work, Ryan served as CEO of Politico. He helped co-found the organization back in the “old days” of 2007, when it was known as THE POLITICO and survived on Drudge links.)

Ryan is promising “editorial independence” and blah blah blah, like all right-wing publishers do when they take over a media property. And that may or may not turn out to be a lie. Assuming he were to press his own views on the editorial board, though, just how much difference would that make? Very little on the foreign policy side. The post’s editorial board is already run by editor Fred Hiatt and his deputy, Jackson Diehl, who run a comically hawkish all-war-all-the-time shop. On domestic policy, the Post is vaguely center-left — generally supportive of government programs’ ability to effect change, but also priggishly concerned about bad manners.

Reagan stuff aside, what a lame, classically Washington choice this is from Jeff Bezos: some Reaganite lawyer. Just when it looked like the Post was finally pulling its head out of its ass, it’s pulled right back in.

He and Rupert Murdoch will have a lot to talk about.

I’ve basically given up reading the Washington Post on-line since they have joined the paywall brigade and haven’t figured out how to stay in business without figuring out that not all their readers are from the District and don’t want their e-mail boxes in Miami flooded with pleas for home delivery deals.  If Jeff Bezos can become a multi-billionaire by running a business without making a profit, he can do the same with a newspaper, and getting a former Reagan toady to run it seems right up his alley.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Copy That

Fareed Zakaria stands accused of plagiarism again.

The pair of anonymous Twitter users who last month exposed a BuzzFeed editor’s plagiarism came out with new accusations Tuesday against journalist Fareed Zakaria.

On their blog Our Bad Media, the Twitter duo who use the handles @blippoblappo and @crushingbort assembled twelve passages of what they said appeared to be plagiarism by the Peabody-award winning journalist.

The accusations reopen an incident from 2012 in which Zakaria apologized for plagiarizing New Yorker’s Jill Lepore. The incident got him suspended from his job as editor-at-large at Time magazine as well as suspended from his hosting gig at CNN. He also volunteered to temporarily halt his column for the Washington Post for one month.

Plagiarists are like people who cheat on their spouses; they never think they’ll get caught, and when they are, it’s “Honey, I’m sorry and it’ll never happen again.  Besides, it didn’t mean anything.  Gimme one more chance.”  Feh.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Short Takes

Iraq: Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Baghdad.

An Egyptian court convicted three journalists of committing journalism.

The Supreme Court largely upheld the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gasses.

Mormon church ousts “Ordain Women” founder.

The Tigers had the night off.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Paper Dumps Will

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the biggest newspapers in the country, is dropping George Will’s syndicated column and apologizing for his column in which he called sexual assault a “coveted status.”

The change has been under consideration for several months, but a column published June 5, in which Mr. Will suggested that sexual assault victims on college campuses enjoy a privileged status, made the decision easier. The column was offensive and inaccurate; we apologize for publishing it.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Stop Digging

Sarah Ellison of Vanity Fair interviewed Arthur Sulzberger on the Jill Abramson firing at the New York Times.  He comes across as someone out of his depth and easily rolled by people he should be managing, and the more he tells of the story about what happened, the worse he comes off.

Ironic that a man in the newspaper business gives a really bad interview.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Not Too Shy

The big news of the Pulitzers was the citation to the Washington Post and the Guardian USA website for breaking the N.S.A. story.

A lot of people on both sides of the story were concentrating on the players: Edward Snowden and the reporters who broke the story.  But it did reveal something a lot of people subconsciously took for granted: that there’s a lot of things that our government does that we don’t know — or don’t want to know about.  Seeing them in print made a lot of people, including members of the Obama administration, rather uncomfortable.  That’s what journalism is supposed to do.

So it’s a tad ironic to hear Sharyl Attkisson, a former correspondent for CBS News, complain about the press for being “very shy” about challenging the Obama administration.  I think the Pulitzer committee would beg to disagree.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sunday Reading

More Money, Less Voting — Ari Berman in The Nation on the Supreme Court’s ideology.

In the past four years, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.

First came the Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which brought us the Super PAC era.

Then came the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act.

Now we have McCutcheon v. FEC, where the Court, in yet another controversial 5-4 opinion written by Roberts, struck down the limits on how much an individual can contribute to candidates, parties and political action committees. So instead of an individual donor being allowed to give $117,000 to campaigns, parties and PACs in an election cycle (the aggregate limit in 2012), they can now give up to $3.5 million, Andy Kroll of Mother Jones reports.

The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche right to buy an election but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.

These are not unrelated issues—the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections are the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else.

Consider these stats from Demos on the impact of Citizens United in the 2012 election:

·  The top thirty-two Super PAC donors, giving an average of $9.9 million each, matched the $313.0 million that President Obama and Mitt Romney raised from all of their small donors combined—that’s at least 3.7 million people giving less than $200 each.

·  Nearly 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from just 159 donors contributing at least $1 million. More than 93 percent of the money Super PACs raised came in contributions of at least $10,000—from just 3,318 donors, or the equivalent of 0.0011 percent of the US population.

·  It would take 322,000 average-earning American families giving an equivalent share of their net worth to match the Adelsons’ $91.8 million in Super PAC contributions.

That trend is only going to get worse in the wake of the McCutcheon decision.

Now consider what’s happened since Shelby County: eight states previously covered under Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act have passed or implemented new voting restrictions (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina). That has had a ripple effect elsewhere. According to the New York Times, “nine states [under GOP control] have passed measures making it harder to vote since the beginning of 2013.”

A country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect fundament rights for all citizens doesn’t sound much like a functioning democracy to me.

Why Local TV News Sucks — Josh Harkinson at Mother Jones explains.

Everybody knows that most local TV newscasts kind of suck. On television, if it bleeds it leads, and if it’s cheesy and trite it wins the night. Local news is a reliable source for late-night comedians—and The Simpsons has been lampooning it forever. Yet despite all of the genre’s shortcomings, local TV news still manages to reach 9 in 10 American adults, 46 percent of whom watch it “often.” It may come as a surprise to you internet junkies, but broadcast television still serves as Americans’ main source of news and information. Which is why it matters that hundreds of local TV news stations have been swept up in a massive new wave of media consolidation: It means that you, the viewer, are being fed an even more repetitive diet of dreck.

In terms of dollar value, more than 75 percent of the nearly 300 full-power local TV stations purchased last year were acquired by just three media giants. The largest, Sinclair Broadcasting, will reach almost 40 percent of the population if its latest purchases are approved by federal regulators. Sinclair’s CEO has said he wants to keep snapping up stations until the company’s market saturation hits 90 percent. (And that’s not a typo.)

Now here’s where things really get sketchy: Media conglomerates such as Sinclair have bought up multiple news stations in the same regions—in nearly half of America’s 210 television markets, one company owns or manages at least two local stations, and a lot of these stations now run very similar or even completely identical newscasts, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. One in four local stations relies entirely on shared content.

On Monday, the Federal Communications Commission finally took steps to curb the practice. The commission’s rules have long prohibited companies from owning more than one of the four top-rated stations in a given market. But there was no rule preventing a single company from managing more than one station per market. Companies exploited this loophole by controlling stations through “joint sales agreements”—essentially shell companies formed just to hold the broadcast license. “Removal of the loophole helps ensure competition, localism, and diversity in local broadcast markets by preventing a practice that previously resulted in consolidation in excess of what is permitted under the Commission’s rules,” the FCC said in a press release.

Ad Some Love — Andrew Solomon at The New Yorker on how advertising is fighting the culture war.

For a long time, prejudice made a certain business sense. You could argue that it was immoral or wrong; others insisted that it was moral and godly. But there was little dispute about the business piece of it. Bill Clinton liked gay people, but he signed the Defense of Marriage Act nonetheless. Karl Rove knew it was smart to put all those anti-gay-marriage initiatives on the ballot. Coors beer could advertise in gay magazines while funding anti-gay interests and keeping any hint of the “non-traditional” out of the ads it ran for general audiences. The regressive side in the so-called culture wars was presumed to include a majority of American consumers; businesses, worried about their image, tended to defer to them.

Now, Honey Maid, that old-fashioned brand of graham crackers, has launched an ad that shows, in the most radical and moving way of any national campaign so far, how much that has changed. It shows a two-dad family, a rocker family, a single dad, an interracial family, a military family. The two-dad household is featured at some length; you cannot be distracted away from it. Most striking is the tagline of the ad: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.” The ad is deeply heartwarming—not simply because it shows diversity (which other companies have done) but because it labels these families with the word “wholesome,” which is exactly the kind of word that tends to get claimed by the evangelical right. People have long suggested that the new structures of the American family are “unwholesome” as a way of rationalizing intolerance. The idea of what is “against nature” has been central to messages of prejudice about both interracial relationships and homosexuality.

Honey Maid knew its ad would provoke controversy, and it did. So the company has made a follow-up spot that has been released on social media. “On March 10th, 2014, Honey Maid launched ‘This is wholesome,’ a commercial that celebrates all families,” the online short proclaims. “Some people didn’t agree with our message.” Viewers see close-ups of tweets and e-mails with remarks such as “Horrible, NOT ‘WHOLESOME,’” “DO NOT APPROVE!,” and “Disgusting!!” The title card says, “So we asked two artists to take the negative comments and turn them into something else.” We then see thirty-year-olds Linsey Burritt and Crystal Grover, who collaborate under the name INDO, taking a printout of each hateful comment and rolling it into a tube, then grouping the tubes at one end of a vast, industrial-looking space to create an assemblage that spells out “Love.” The artists appear to walk away, their work done. Then the online ad proclaims, “But the best part was all the positive messages we received. Over ten times as many.” Then we see e-mails with epithets such as “family is family” and “love the Honey Maid ad” and “this story of a beautiful family” and “most beautiful thing.” The entire room fills up with tubes made from these messages. Finally, we are told, “Proving that only one thing really matters when it comes to family … ,” and then we see the word “love” embraced by a roomful of paper tubes. The pacing of the spot is impeccable: the first half turns hatred into love, and the second half provides evidence of love itself. In its first day online, it garnered more than 1.5 million views.


Advertising both follows and leads to change. Marketers’ objective is to sell things, and they will seldom be brave enough to jeopardize their own interests, but their own interests appear to be changing. At some quiet moment when “Modern Family” was reaping good ratings, the mentality of corporate America began to change. Cheerios ran an ad last summer that showed an interracial family and received an astonishing amount of vitriol—nearly fifty years after Loving v. Virginia. Some of the responses to its posting on General Mills”s YouTube channel were so odious that General Mills actually disabled the comments. When General Mills did a second ad in the series featuring the same family, it hired screeners to sort through the YouTube comments and remove the most bilious. It debuted during the Super Bowl, in February.


But how crushing that in the same week that Honey Maid has made history, we have the passage, in Mississippi, of S.B. 2681, signed into law Thursday, which takes the same tack as the vetoed Arizona bill but in very careful terms, allowing those with religious rationales to act out their bigotry, and enjoining government from interfering when they do so. I suppose that Mississippi, which doesn’t have an N.F.L. team, didn’t worry about not getting the Super Bowl. The anti-L.G.B.T. Family Research Council has taken credit for the passage of the bill, writing that its efforts

helped to bring along the business community—which, in Arizona, was so deceived by the media and outside leftist groups.… Mississippi companies didn’t have that problem, because the state tuned out the propaganda.

Where Mississippi has gone, other states will likely follow. With no federal jobs or housing protections, with no ENDA, gay people are vulnerable to such oppression. Being good for business gets us only so far. What, then, of Honey Maid? What, then, of making the word love out of all that hatred? It will take more than a pair of talented installation artists to bring about such a transformation on a national scale.

Doonesbury — What an idea.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Faking Out the Fakers

If Tucker Carlson, the poor man’s George F. Will, can run a fake website full of fake and exaggerated right-wing drivel, it stands to reason that it would get punked on by a fake news story from a satirical magazine article from 1990.

Dave Weigel at Slate:

If 2013 was the year of “the Internet falling for bogus stories,” 2014 is starting off with green shoots of hope. Some background:

Two and a half long months ago, reporter Charles C. Johnson teamed up with Joel Gilbert—a birther director who previously claimed that Barack Obama was sired by a communist poet—and talked to a few Newark residents who hated Cory Booker. The resulting Daily Caller story, titled “Neighbors: Cory Booker Never Lived in Newark,” was buzzy enough to generate questions for the New Jersey U.S. Senate candidate in his final press avails before he won the special election. Steve Lonegan, Booker’s opponent, even held a press conference to draw attention to the claims. It didn’t take much for BuzzFeed‘s Ruby Cramer to prove that the article was wrong, or to later prove that Johnson had previously (and without declaring it in his journalism) done research for an anti-Booker PAC.

Would that mean “fewer Charles Johnson articles in the Daily Caller“? No, of course not. Three days into the new year, Johnson appeared again in the Daily Caller with an apparent scoop about David D. Kirkpatrick, the New York Times Cairo bureau chief who’d just filed a lengthy corrective history of the 9/11/12 Benghazi attacks. Never mind Kirkpatrick’s reporting; Johnson proved that Kirkpatrick had “show[ed] his naked body to all” while a student at Princeton 25 years ago.

The source of the scoop was a parody edition of the Princeton University newspaper that also ran articles on the then-dead Elvis crooning for students cramming for finals and a professor who claimed to be able to brainwash his students at will.

Mr. Johnson has admitted to not understanding sarcasm and has apologized to Mr. Kirkpatrick.  But the best part is his defense of his journalistic integrity:

As an aside some people are arguing that I was trying to discredit Kirkpatrick’s controversial reporting on the Benghazi attack which is false. I simply wrote up the story because his name was in the news. I have no idea if what he reported was accurate.


Thursday, December 12, 2013

Short Takes

U.S. suspends non-lethal aid to Syrian opposition.

Blast reported near U.S. embassy in Afghanistan.

Sharp rise in sign-ups for healthcare in November.

Top aide to G.O.P. senator arrested for child porn.

Australia court overturns marriage equality law after five days.

R.I.P. Eleanor Parker, Oscar-nominated actor.